Altruism,, and the Dangers of Pop Philosophy

History, science, and philosophy are terribly nuanced things. They do not easily conform to our instant information age. You cannot condense the intricate mechanics of ancient civilizations to a soundbite or the myriad ideologies of any one philosopher to a TOP TEN list. You will never read a historical journal with titles like “Five Things You Thought about Spartan Oral Sex that is Wrong!” In grad school, my professor literally told me I would be “crucified” by the scholarly community should I make broad generalizations in my research papers, so while may claim that Romans were not as orgy happy as movies portray, the truth is more subtle. The Roman Empire was as vast and diverse as the United States, and people did participate in orgies, just as there were those who found such behaviors abhorrent. Unlike the monotheistic world we live in today, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity dealt with differences of opinion and morality through veneration of different gods. If you believed orgies are morally justifiable, you likely spent time with acolytes of Aphrodite, where sex was part of their religious ritual. For the more prudish, there was Athena, whose priestesses remained chaste through life. If you really want to learn something about the ancient world, log off and pick up an actual history book written by an actual accredited historian.

Sites like have also given rise to pop philosophy, but based on the jaded outlook of most of their articles, I think they should be renamed I recently had the (mis)fortune to read a post entitled, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better PersonWhat incensed me most was this:

Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.

You ask, “Are you a doctor?”

The guy says, “No.”

You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”

At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.

Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my [wife/husband/best friend/parent] is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”

Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?

In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”

So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.

If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.

Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.

Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.

Funny? Sure. But the problem is that most of the 16 million readers (16 million!) have little to no background in philosophy, and little to no ammunition with which to challenge such ideas.
The last line states that, “love and kindness matter . . . as long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.” But for this to be true, the inverse must be also, that people only do things for reward, that there is no true selfless action or altruism. Similar arguments have been made by Nietzsche, Hobbes, and Ayn Rand, that one way or another, we are all using each other for personal gain. Even something as seemingly altruistic as giving money to the poor can be viewed as a selfish act, as the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge’s of the world earn status in their communities or at the very least, enjoy a sense of self-importance. Looking specifically at the Cracked story, however, we can find many flaws. You could argue that the ability to stop bleeding wounds is of primary importance, trumping other human qualities, but without compassion, a trained medical professional would not care to stop and help your loved one. After all, how does helping a stranger benefit them directly? Doctors are not being paid for working “off duty”. But just as crucial in this case is honesty. A dishonest individual without training may lead you to believe they can offer some service while delaying a 911 call. If my wife were shot and bleeding in the street, first and foremost I would hope for someone compassionate enough to care to help me; then and only then will it matter whether they have the capacity to do so. In all areas of life, honesty and compassion matter, whether you possess some helpful skill or not. But let’s take this case even further. Suppose after being shot, this paramedic managed to save my wife, but she becomes permanently disabled, unable to make dinner, take romantic walks or even make love. My wife can no longer provide me with my needs and wants, whereas many other women can. Does this writer contend that I abandon her for someone who can better provide for me? Most people in such instances remain with their spouses, continuing to love and care for them, despite great personal loss.

Altruism is more than just some feel-good hippie philosophy. It is rooted in the evolution of our species. Even among non-humans, survival-of-the-fittest is often less beneficial than cooperation. In nature, we find symbiotic relationships the norm, not the exception. Life forms as brainless as your immune system developed during primordial times for mutual gain. While sea turtles may not care much for their young, human beings, acting only in self interest, would doom the species as a whole. In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a woman to die to bring new life into the world, and even today children come at a substantial financial loss. If women acted without a sense of altruism, their infants would not survive. I would, in fact, make the case that altruism originated among our species due to necessities of childbirth. We learn to care for each other from our parents who cared for us. For this reason, we find examples throughout history of people who acted with enormous risk to themselves for zero personal gain, like the German families who hid Jews in their homes during the Nazi regime, or more recently, the man who jumped under a moving subway train to save the life of a complete stranger who had fallen on the tracks.

Altruism is intrinsic to humanity, which is why we find it in all societies throughout history, serving as the basis for our religions. While pop philosophers may argue the alternative, it does not sit right with me or with most people. Just try telling a friend or family member that you only value them for what they can do for you. While human emotion can often lead to erroneous beliefs, in this case, altruism feels right because it is.

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